Saturday, August 15, 2009

Inglourious History

Quentin Tarantino is well known for his love of bloodletting: films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill (vol. 1 2003, vol. 2 2004) are chocked full of violence. So it should come as little surprise that his latest project, Inglourious Basterds - due for release on 21 August - features "a group of Jewish-American soldiers... [who] ambush and kill Nazi patrols, desecrating their corpses whilst leaving one alive to tell others," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Tarantino is quoted as saying that the film is a "spaghetti-western but with World War II iconography."

Inglourious Basterds alludes to Enzo Castellari's 1978 movie of the same name (but conventional spelling), though Tarantino's work is apparently a new story and not simply a remake. (Castellari's film follows a group of American soldiers who are on their way to prison for various infractions, try to escape to neutral Switzerland, but inadvertently end up on a secret mission to steal Nazi technology with the help of the French Resistance.)

Even prior to the film's release, there is plenty to talk about. There is, of course, the question of Tarantino's use of stylized - dare we say Homeric? - violence. But the question that that first came to my mind upon seeing the trailer was that of history. So far as I know, the United States never organized Jewish units during World War II. This is in contrast to the British, who recruited the Jewish Brigade and the Special Interrogation Group from among Jews, primarily - though not exclusively - from Palestine. Both saw action in North Africa, and the Jewish Brigade (along with Arab elements of the Palestine Regiment) saw service in Italy. Though members of the SIG disguised themselves as German soldiers - an action which put them outside the Geneva Convention - their goals were basic commando objectives, not terror. After the war, some members of the Jewish Brigade formed assassination squads that hunted down German officers, some of whom claimed to belong to the fictitious Tilhas Tigiz Gesheften, to allow themselves to travel more easily around occupied Germany. However, none of this extracurricular was sanctioned by the British, much less the Americans. (Remember, the British Empire itself was the target of militant Zionism.)

I have been reading through OSS files in the National Archives lately. Though this American outfit has a reputation for playing dirty, and engaged in its fair share of black propaganda and covert operations, I have been surprised by the extent to which OSS insisted that its operations be conducted on the up-and-up. Interrogation manuals read about like business interviews, without so much as an elliptical reference to coercive methods. One series of memos I encountered mooted the idea of OSS special forces posing as civilians - as Tarnatino's characters do - but the idea was rejected for two reasons: (1) It would place American soldiers outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention. Our enemies had violated the Convention on plenty of occasions, but did also follow it from time to time - downed airmen in Germany, for example, were well-treated - but American leaders insisted that we play by the rules, in the hopes that prisoners might receive fair treatment. (2) There was a keen sense from American leaders that we would lose the moral high ground and could not pass judgment on our enemies if we violated the laws of war.

I think it safe to say that Tarantino has not taken a historical story and simply changed a few names, nor has he even imagined a plausible historical scenario which might have happened, but did not. He has made up a story which runs contrary to the facts of history on several key points. I am inclined to take offense at this not so much as an American - whose side is made to look bad, even morally equivalent to its Nazi opponent - but even more as a historian. Is the past simply a malleable thing we can reconfigure to fit our narrative needs? How many people will view this film and conclude that the war was more or like this (even while acknowledging that the details are fictional)?

Some might argue that Tarnatino is reaching deeper than simple facts and revealing the fundamental truth that war is hell. This is true to a point, but failing to make any kind of distinctions can be dangerous. Vindictive brutality on both sides was the rule on the Eastern Front; it was the exception in the West. War may be hell, but there is no reason to make it more hellish: that is why a great many nations have not only agreed to laws of war, but even follow them more often than not.

But even aside from these particular questions, is Tarantino's use of history licit? Is history a mere assemblage of names and dates, the re-writing of which only constitutes a kind of white lie? Or does that assemblage contain a kind of deeper truth, which is obscured and violated by changing too many details?

Ultimately the question is that of fiction: What are its bounds? How closely must it conform to "reality"? Fiction reveals certain truths by imagining situations that have not existed, to gain greater perspective on those that have, or will. This is the basic premise behind the fantasy genre. But I worry Tarantino may be blurring the line between history and fiction in a dangerous way that is not faithful to either. But perhaps the jury should remain out until after 21 August.
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